Witchy Kingdom – Snippet 17
“In the meantime, if you find any way to introduce
a plague of weevils into Cahokia, by all means do so.”
No one told Dadgayadoh to keep an eye on the Sorcerer Robert Hooke, but you didn’t climb the Imperial Ohio Company ladder under Director Schmidt by sitting around waiting for the rain to fall, and Dadgayadoh was determined to climb. His first encounter with the Company had been as a boy, selling the furs of animals he’d trapped to Company agents at the headwaters of the Ohio. He’d envied their new long guns, the bright colors they wore, and the confidence with which they walked through the woods, and he’d decided he’d be one of them.
It had been easy enough; he’d acted as guide on a few journeys into Iroquois territory, Oranbega, and among the Talligewi, and one small battle with the gloomy, slow-talking giants, in which he’d saved two agents’ lives by burying them, along with himself, in a bog for three days. When the victorious Talligewi had finally grown bored of looking for the missing agents and gone back their pole-borne houses, Dadgayadoh had pulled all three of them from the mud and led them home.
Even if he hadn’t known the name, it was obvious that there was something wrong with the fellow–a deathly illness or a curse–and Dadgayadoh was mistrustful. As it happened, he knew enough English history–learned from campfire songs, mostly–to know the name Robert Hooke, and to understand that the man was some sort of necromancer, a walking corpse.
When the Sorcerer left camp to ride around the besieged city, Dadgayadoh followed him. He made a point of leaving his silk top hat and his red blanket behind in his travel chest, wearing instead a nondescript gray wool coat such as you might see anywhere along the Ohio, on any person, or such as he might wear to hunt.
Hooke caught Dadgayadoh’s attention splitting wood. He did it himself, by hand, using something that looked like an obsidian wedge. The tool was sharp enough that it split the skin of the Sorcerer’s hands repeatedly, leaving smears of black ichor on his work and on the snowy ground.
Hooke not only asked for no help, he accepted none; when two agents, evidently recognizing him from his interactions with Director Schmidt and seeking to curry favor, tried to offer the Lazar a long-handled ax, he took it from them and beat them both so severely with its handle that they spent the next three days moaning on their bedrolls.
Hooke started with a single trunk, a tall, straight pine that he felled himself. He didn’t seem to care about the bark, but he smashed off all the branches and kicked them aside, leaving the straight naked bole. Then, over the course of a day and a half, he reduced the trunk into two large lengths of timber and many small ones.
He did all this within the company camp, and Dadgayadoh could pretend to be about various errands while keeping an eye on the Sorcerer.
Heaping all the unused branches and needles onto a canvas, Hooke lit it on fire. He stood watch through the night, warning off anyone who approached his blaze. Dadgayadoh drifted in and out of sleep in a small stand of pine beside the canvas wall of a commissary tent, always awaking to find the black silhouette of the dead Englishman standing against the orange blaze. The next day, when the fire had finally died, Hooke collected the ashes in a basket.
He then piled all the cut timber in a wagon.
Dadgayadoh watched from the tent he and SchÃ¤fer shared with the Parlett children as Hooke finished loading the wagon, hitched it to two horses, and then rolled out of camp. He quietly saddled a horse without a light; the moon was just a tiny waxing sliver, but it was enough for Dadgayadoh, who grew up in the deep, tangled forests of Iroquoia, looking for the marks of hoofprints in soft earth and shooting at distant deer.
Then he followed.
Hooke drove slowly. He sang, in a language Dadgayadoh didn’t know, so it wasn’t Iroquois, French, or English. It didn’t sound like German, Dutch, or Talligewi, either. He drove the wagon with one hand, holding the other hand off the side constantly like the single wing of a cumbersome bird.
Puzzled, Dadgayadoh slipped ahead in a copse of trees to get a better look. The Sorcerer took a handful of ash from the basket and held it to one side, slowly letting the powder fall from his fingertips. When his hand was empty, he filled it with ash again.
He was leaving a trail of burnt wood.
A couple of miles from camp, Hooke stopped the wagon and climbed down. Taking two of the short lengths of wood, he pounded one stake, three feet long, into the ground. He then tied a second stake across it at a right angle; the second stake sat just inches from the ground and was as long as Dadgayadoh’s forearm.
He rubbed a line along each piece of timber with the pine ash.
When he was done, Hooke chanted more in his strange language, remounted the wagon, and continued his ride, leaving Dadgayadoh staring in puzzlement.
His people had fiercely rejected the preaching of Anne Hutchinson and every other preacher Christendom had thrown at them since. Still, he had seen enough of the Ohio to know that a cross–two pieces of wood joined at a right angle, with the downward-pointing length longer than the other three–marked a Christian place of worship, or book, or image.
What did an upside-down cross mean?
Hooke was English. Maybe this sign meant something to the followers of Thunor and Herne. Dadgayadoh had never been to the Crown Lands, and what little he knew of the Cavaliers and their gods had come at second hand.
The Lazar rode a slow circuit around Cahokia, planting the small upside-down crosses at regular intervals and connecting them all with faint trails of ash, made from the same wood.
As dawn approached, Dadgayadoh rode behind a long screen of trees to get ahead of the magician, fearing to be spotted if he continued to trail. He rode then along Cahokia’s shattered wharves and under the eyes of the defenders on its walls, stopping only twice to be sure that Hooke continued his method of planting the queer crosses. That Dadgayadoh could tell, he planted two along the river, both tightly against large poles sunk into the bank to support docks. That positioning made the crosses harder to see, and maybe protected them against traffic.
Beastkind slunk among the ruined docks. Dadgayadoh’s rifle was loaded, and he kept his long knife bare and in his hand. The misshapen, monstrous semi-people of the Great Green Wood left him alone; an otter the size of a bear, with a reptile’s eyes and tail, came close, but Dadgayadoh hissed at it and brandished the knife, deliberately trying to catch the light with it. Whatever the otter-crocodile saw, it was enough, and it turned and crept away under the smashed hull of a keelboat.
Strange barriers, the walls of Cahokia. His people knew the Firstborn of the eastern Ohio, who built differently–mounds and thatched buildings–but this palisade was something else. It had appeared to be made of the trunks of dead trees, branches and all, when Dadgayadoh had first arrived with Notwithstanding Schmidt. A few days later, on the day the Company and its traders and militia had all been driven out of the city, the wall had sprouted leaves.
Now its branches were thick with fruit.
Dadgayadoh rode ahead and secreted himself in an irrigation ditch halfway between the river and camp. At this point, he was watching only for the sake of confirmation, and Hooke did as expected, pounding two more of his mysterious stakes with crossbars into the ground.
He thought, as Hooke was hammering into place the last of the small crosses, a mile or so from camp, that the Sorcerer looked up and stared in Dadgayadoh’s direction.
Dadgayadoh froze in place and shivered. He sneaked two fingers to the ornately beaded charm that hung around his neck on a snakeskin thong. It had always served him against witches. Would it be strong enough to defend him against the Sorcerer?